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How we can overcome our covid conditioning and start traveling again

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In 1974, a Japanese soldier named Hiroo Onoda was persuaded to leave the jungle of Lubang Island in the Philippines, where he had been for 29 years believing that World War II was still underway. Only when his former commanding officer, by then a bookseller, was brought to him to reverse his orders did Onoda capitulate and leave the jungle.

After a year of trauma, shutdowns and treating most people like they’re made of fire, I find Onoda’s story very relatable.

Trust issues are a bear, and mine have grown like Jack’s beanstalk since the coronavirus pandemic began. I see people with no masks or ineptly worn masks, standards relaxing and even my most wonderfully uptight friends making travel plans while I peer out from the jungle in my head, conditioned for vigilance and not believing the war is over.

None of this would be a big deal, except that way back when safe tanning was my biggest worry, I booked tickets to a convention in Austin in June. This June. Normally I would be excited, but nothing is normal anymore. It’s not the same world, and we are not the same people. The White Queen famously bragged to Alice about believing six impossible things before breakfast. In 2021, we all make her look like an amateur.

I’ll be long vaccinated by June, but my worry now is not just covid. I’m worried my social skills are on par with those of King Kong. I worry about how I will react to people or they to me, and I don’t want to end up Karen-ing or being Karen-ed in a viral video. Even in a good year, traveling can be a lot.

So how does an anxious person achieve reentry?

“We’ve never had to reenter collectively, globally,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, a professor at Adelphi University. “Most people who reenter have had personal traumas” — they have experienced a crime or an illness or are returning from active service. Sometimes it may be more widely experienced, “but nothing on this level,” she says. Mass trauma means the people six feet away from you are traumatized, too. This time, “reentry is going to be different for everybody.”

Want to travel after getting vaccinated? Precautions are still needed, experts say.

I made the small step of going to a local mall — a first since lockdown — wondering if a gradual approach to more densely peopled areas would help me acclimate.

“We call that gradient exposure,” Serani says, and it is a good way to ease into a worrisome situation. Most of us have done it in some way already. You were in lockdown, then you went for walks, then walked in the park and so on according to your area’s rules and your comfort level.

“Little steps can make you feel more confident in your own ability to teach yourself how to be safe,” Serani says, and feeling unsafe, or helpless, is the root of anxiety.

It’s a good idea to think through what you need to do to feel secure in your own space and stick to it, Serani says. Wear a mask, wear two, add a visor and a personal air purifier if that’s what makes being in the airport or the hotel lobby okay. I have an old astronaut costume I’m thinking about dusting off.

“I always wipe down my seat, I don’t care who’s watching,” says Serani, a self-described germaphobe. We all have little travel rituals — certain music, snacks or that one travel pillow you prefer. Make your personal security items part of all that.

“It’s about what you can control,” not other people that you can’t control. “You’ll slip into a helpless state if you start thinking, “Look at that person. He doesn’t have a mask on! Look at that person! They just touched this and didn’t wipe it down,” and that’s bad for our health.

“When we catastrophize, we raise the stress hormone cortisol,” Serani says. We can temper that with positive self talk and distraction. “By listening to that audiobook, some beautiful music or getting engrossed in ‘The Crown,’ you’re going to reduce that hormone, which will make everything a little easier.”

I majored in catastrophizing, and I can vouch for this advice. My iPhone is chock-a-block with audiobooks and podcasts, the sole function of which are to strap my focus down like Hannibal Lecter on his dolly so I can’t reach the “what-ifs.”

“Most of us do not like ambiguity, and there is a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to covid,” says Cheryl Carmin, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University. Worse, the virus is a “moving target,” and we have to adapt our safety standards as our understanding of it evolves.

How long will it take to overcome our pandemic travel anxiety?

Carmin recommends asking a lot of questions before you go into situations you are unsure of. Find out how relaxed or stringent the city you’re going to is — what’s the rate of vaccination? If you’re visiting friends or family, have the safety conversation before you go to avoid unpleasant surprises. Call ahead to restaurants, hotels, attractions or conference planners and ask what protocols are in place to keep you safe.

Anxious travelers may find comfort in the fact that federal regulations are on their side. “There is a law that if you are on a federal property, you must be masked, and that includes airplanes,” Carmin says, giving flight attendants leverage they didn’t have before. As for the half-maskers, she says, “Surgeons can be in an eight-hour surgery and they’ve got their mask on the entire time.”

So there.

One of my most cautious friends was recently seated on a plane next to someone who moved her mask down to drink. She had it down for some time. After calm consideration, he wrote a note on his phone that said “Would you mind putting your mask on? [Smiling emoji]” and showed it to her. She did it, no problem.

People have their mind on a lot these days. I act like a little hall monitor about this stuff, and even I have started to walk into a store before realizing I was unmasked. Sometimes people just may not realize what they’re doing.

Or they may know exactly what they’re doing. In either case you can opt to say something, Serani says, but while getting from Point A to Point B may not be the best time to initiate societal changes.

“You can do that elsewhere,” she says. “Traveling is anxiety-producing, so control what you can.” And, ultimately, “try to mind your own business” — in the positive sense of taking care of your own security within your own space.

Another thing you get to manage is your own timeline.

As much as I would like to go to Austin, it may not be this June. When I fly post-vaccine for the first time, I don’t think I want it to be for a convention, but for quiet time with people I love and miss. That’s my reward for all the preparation.

Even Onoda was willing to leave the jungle for an old friend.

Langley is a writer based in Orlando. Find her on Twitter: @LizLangley.

More from Travel:

Fear of flying? Use these tools to stay grounded when your anxiety is sky high.

‘Mental time travel’ is one of many imaginative ways we can cope with the pandemic

Grounded by fear: A woman tackles the panic attacks that kept her from flying

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments on The Post’s live blog at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus

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